A whole lot of Carrboro folks have written to the Carrboro Town Council in favor of the Bolin Creek Greenway. Folks would really like their kids to be able to ride bikes to school, or to have a nice walking or jogging path nearby.

But as has happened before, there are also a handful of local and vocal detractors. Most of the detractors cite the flora and fauna. They point to the ecological importance of preserving urban forest, and the greenhouse gas sequestration provided by trees. (Some really just don’t want it in their back yards, but that’s another post…)

In this post I’m going to share a few thoughts and also take a brief look at the Sierra Club’s Smart Growth and Urban Infill Guidance and see what it has to say about projects like the Bolin Creek Greenway.

Sign up for the Carrboro Linear Parks Project mailing list to get updates on building out Carrboro’s greenway network. Visit the Carrboro Linear Parks Project website for more information. There’s also a helpful FAQ with answers to many questions.

Update: We support the creekside alignment for the reasons detailed here.

But first, a little background info.

Trees sequester carbon that contributes to climate change – i.e. they take carbon dioxide out of the air and tie it up, in wood. Carrboro has recently done an estimate of the tree cover existing in town and its contribution to carbon sequestration. We have A LOT of trees, and they sequester A LOT of carbon. Yay for that!

BUT it’s important to point out that building the greenway won’t change that. The Bolin Creek Greenway preferred path is along an Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) right of way that is already cleared to allow for OWASA vehicles, so tree removal will be relatively minimal.

The greenway “preferred path” will not remove any significant amount of Carrboro’s urban forest. (More detail here.) In fact, paving the trail will help the trees and the stream by keeping people on the path and ending the stream sedimentation that the present dirt path contributes.

But there is much more of an environmental story to be told here.

If we’re concerned about climate change, as we say we are, we need to do something about the biggest sources of carbon pollution in Carrboro, right? So where is all the carbon coming from? According to the Town of Carrboro’s most recent (2019) greenhouse gas emissions inventory,  motor vehicles contribute 38% of the carbon emitted in town, second only to electricity use (45%) in magnitude. Natural gas use for heating, stoves, etc. is number three at 16%, and solid waste is 1%. (Not only do motor vehicles emit carbon, they emit a lot of toxic pollution as well, and right at nose level!)

2019 community emissions from carrboro

The greenway is intended, in part, to help get folks out of cars, and getting people out of cars is one big thing we need to do to lower our carbon emissions. (Also, the greenway will bring important equity benefits ensuring that all community members have an accessible, safe path.) Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the international body that puts out those big climate reports every few years – has stressed the importance of lowering “vehicle miles traveled.”

Safe routes to school

For one example, giving kids a safe walking and biking route to Seawall Elementary, Smith Middle, and Chapel Hill High schools will likely prevent a significant amount of family driving and idling, which costs time and money in addition to pollution. How much total carbon would the greenway save? We don’t know yet, exactly. But while there is no one magic bullet to getting folks out of cars, we do know that the greenway will help over the coming generations.

When my own kids attended McDougle Elementary and Middle schools back in the early aughts, the drop off and pickup lines were full of cars creeping — and in the afternoon, idling for 15 minutes at a time! — spewing pollution, every school day of the year. Seawell, Smith, and Chapel Hill High are no different, and the problem hasn’t gotten any better since – I admit it – ten years ago when my own kids drove themselves to Chapel Hill High in our crappy, ancient minivan. Honestly, a safe bike route to the school would have given us – and many other families – a better, cleaner and safer option.

So finally, what does the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest environmental advocacy group, have to say about any of this?

The Sierra Club’s Smart Growth and Urban Infill Guidance is a pretty helpful document, using well-sourced research to make recommendations for cities and towns across the country, to help us become more sustainable communities. It has chapters on Land Use, Housing Policy, Transportation and Transit, Climate Resilience, and Labor, and explains how they are interconnected. It’s worth a read.

For our Bolin Creek Greenway example, let’s take a look at the chapter called Active Transportation and Transit. The very first sentence says, One of the Sierra Club transformative strategies for building communities included in the National Sierra Club Urban Infill Policy is: “Transit, bike, and pedestrian first approaches to transportation.” What does this mean? Partly it means that: To fix the rising rates of emissions from transportation we have to change both the physical layout of our communities and transportation infrastructure. (p. 79)

The guidance goes on to recognize the importance of what it calls Active Transportation, using as examples walking, bicycling, and/or rolling, including wheelchairs, walkers, baby strollers, skateboards, scooters, etc. It notes that active transportation can be designed for urban, suburban, and rural areas without extraordinary expense if properly planned. (p. 80)

Finally, the chapter goes on to recommend a set of active transportation (and transit) policies, practices and strategies for which members should advocate, along with links to further resources on these recommendations. Here are some of them (pp. 82-85):

Safe routes to schools plan and implementation strategy

  • Non-motorized transport strategy or policy

Policies that equalize access to micro-mobility

  • Policies that require infrastructure for active transportation modes to support the “first and last mile” and that are complementary with a community-wide mass transit strategy

Constructing connected networks of multi-use trails

  • Providing safe and convenient bicycle and pedestrian connections to public parks and recreation areas.

With respect to greenways and sustainable communities, it turns out that the Sierra Club gets it. Y’all should check out the guidance. I’ve just given you the tip of the iceberg.

And FFS, let’s build the greenway already.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Kathy Kaufman is a retired air quality policy analyst from the US EPA in RTP. She is currently on the Executive Committee of the Orange-Chatham Sierra Club and is a member of Carrboro’s Climate Action...